The Rioting in France and the Decline of the State

 In many nations, both rich and poor, the State’s governing mechanisms remain strong; but its hold on the hearts of its subjects weakens every generation. And it was only that loyalty that allowed the machinery to get built. When that loyalty goes, this machinery will seize up and then rust away.

The Decline of the State is to political theorists as is a singularity to astronomers. Just a theory. Difficult to prove because we cannot see it directly, but only see its influence on events around it. Both constitute a veil; we can only imagine what lies beyond.

We will skip the conventional claptrap on which the media obsess: the root causes of the riots, the government programs both necessary and sufficient to cure them, and the apocalyptical nature of the situation.  Let’s focus on comments of the government and media observers. As always, smart money will bet that they are wrong.

“The absence of dialog and the escalation of disrespect lead to a dangerous situation.”
— President Jacques Chirac

A logical diagnosis, but it does not lead anywhere. Will the rioter’s respect for the government increase as a result of negotiations begun in response to street violence?

“Violence is not the solution.”
— Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin

A philosophy which the rioters obviously do not share. Will the rioters change their view as a result of anything the government does in response?

“The French can count on the total determination of the government.”
— Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy

Yes, but determination to do what – and when? Only after twelve days of rioting did the government take the obvious and necessary step of initiating curfews.

In Slate’s review of Monday’s media coverage, Zuzanna Kobrzynski and Amanda Watson-Boles observed, “All the papers save one ignored the rioters themselves.” They also note that most reports focus on long-term solutions – such as new government programs to integrate immigrant communities into French society.

The media’s focus on the government looks like an analytical error, as the rioters clearly have an advantage over the government in both initiative and determination. Also note the irrelevance of the proposed solutions to the rioters’ immediate concerns. Perhaps more important than these measures’ effectiveness is their appeal to the majority of French voters, and to the bureaucrats for whom they represent more jobs.

What caused the riots?

The French Government abandoned the great ring cities around Paris – funding their inhabitants but ceding effective control over their lives to community groups such as gangs and mosques. Police and social workers seldom go there, so the inhabitants had to develop their own polity.  This is the critical factor. The government is not facing insurgents attempting to wrest control of their people from France. The local gangs and mosques represent the established powers. The government is attempting to regain what it has lost.

Therefore the riots are to some extent a geographically based phenomenon, hence the diversity of religions and ethnicities in the rioters – an important and overlooked aspect.

Having been abandoned once, these communities – largely second and third generation immigrants – seem unlikely to easily give their loyalty to the State. That opportunity was lost with their parents and grandparents.  Here we see the Decline of the State in tangible form.  The riots started from an attempt – or perceived attempt – by the government to regain control of the streets. The government might succeed, but only with a strong effort – stronger than anything now publicly discussed.

Next Steps

What happens next could illustrate how these riots differ from the “typical” developed nation urban riots.  For example, consider the “race riots” than burned out many US urban cores in the late 1960s, and their more recent cousin in Los Angeles following the Rodney King verdict. These rioters shared the same goals as their fellow Americans. Only a very few desired separation from the wider society.

The French Government faces the same dilemma as that William Lind ascribes to the US in Iraq: with whom to negotiate, and the lack of common interests to negotiate.  The rioting seems visceral, unorganized. The only “established” community leaders are found in the mosques. The government can hardly negotiate as equals with drug trafficking gangs and such that comprise the other significant social structures in these areas.

The good news and bad news are the same: the Islamic leaders seem uninvolved in the riots. It’s good that they were uninvolved, hence France not in a pre-revolutionary situation. Bad news, as they have to run to get in front of their followers – hence their weak (or perhaps just slow to have effect) efforts to stop the riots.

The young people from North African societies such as Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia are mostly only nominal Muslims. They frequently do not speak much Arabic, and don’t have “proper” French, either. They frequently do not know much about Islam and most of them certainly don’t practice it- much less being more virulent about it than Middle Easterners.

— “The Problem with Frenchness“, Professor Juan Cole, posted at his blog Informed Consent, 9 November 2005

Unfortunately the Islamic leaders are almost the only community leaders available, despite their possibly weak influence on the rioting “youths.”  This is a structural problem in western societies, as States have weakened competing internal institutions. The government would have the same problem if ethnic French youth rioted. With whom would they negotiate? They frequently do not know much about Christianity and most of them certainly don’t practice it.

So the government begins negotiations with the mosques. What will the Muslim leaders ask for?  The government will likely offer money and programs, plus official status. That is, they will attempt to co-opt the Islamic leadership.  Foolishly, for local elites who command the loyalty of their people – however weakly – have the advantage over a State that does not. The negotiations themselves prove the Muslim leaders to be the big winners.

I suspect they will want greater autonomy for their communities, both political and cultural. Sharia law instead of French law on family matters. Some role in the civil court system. Involvement with the operation of the police, perhaps on review boards or consulting committees.

The threats will remain unstated. The government can unleash its security apparatus. The Islamic community can escalate the violence.

Does the government have a viable alternative, one that they’re willing to execute? The question itself shows how far the Decline of the State has progressed in this small but active (i.e. willing to use violence) French community.  We’ll learn much by the French Government’s response among these unappealing choices. Of course, appeasement and fighting are not exclusive options.

But go to Aulnay and a quite different pattern emerges. At first, I’d thought that it was minimally policed if at all … But look closer, and there are signs that here there indeed is a war being fought by the French State, not by massive billeting of troops to quell an uprise (sic) … but a more secret war, fought by the security services against determined hardened criminal networks, clandestinely and quietly selecting its targets, and in the shadows so as not to alienate a broader and possibly tendentious populace.

Look carefully at the cars going by … (the) ones bearing in each seat beefy short-coiffured men clearly only recently out of the forces, if at that, with more than a bit of technological wizardry inside to boot. There is a bus of gendarmes here as well, but this one does not bear the title ‘gendarmerie’ on the side to comfort those whom it protects and serves; it has its lights out, and is parked at an out-of-the-way stop a few roads removed from a project to effectively simulate an off-duty bus.

The French State has not given up on these neighbourhoods; it merely joins the battle on its terms, and against its selected enemies. … A state defeats riotous masses with brigades and divisions; but one counters lightly mobile criminal gangs with a tradecraft determinedly more old-school, quiet, hardened and effective.

— Patrick Belton, posted at OxBlog, 9 November 2005

Nobody of sense doubts that the French State has sufficient strength to handle this episode. The riots are just a milestone, unimportant except to indicate France’s passage along the long road to the Decline of the State.

For more information about the Decline of the State theme

  1. See the writings of the top expert on 4GW:  The Essential 4GW reading list: chapter One, Martin van Creveld
  2. The Plame Affair and the Decline of The State, Chapter I in my Decline of the State series.
  3. For symptoms of the decline of the American state, see “4GW at work in a community near you.”
  4. An article describing how the disintegration of Iraq shows the fragility of states in this new era, plus a famous future historian comments about our time.
  5. For a recent description of the decline of the state in America, see Taking Marriage Private (NY Times op-ed, 26 November 2007).
  6. Forecast: Death of the American Constitution

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